Lately I’ve been thinking about New Orleans. The Crescent City has a huge Sicilian heritage yet it has never been known as a great pizza city. We will explore why at a later date because right now let’s think about something New Orleans is famous for and how it relates to pizza -- music.
Back in the early 1900’s there was a legendary jazz musician named Freddie Keppard. People who heard Freddie play claimed he was the best cornetist in history, yet today most people have never heard of him, and here’s why: Freddie Keppard was always afraid that some young musician would steal his secrets. He became so paranoid that he would play with his hands covered by a handkerchief so rivals wouldn’t see what he was doing. He went so far as to refuse to record his music fearing that it would reveal too much to his competitors. The result is that Freddie Keppard is now just a footnote in musical history, his talents reduced to nothing more than legend and speculation. On the other hand just about everyone knows of Louis Armstrong, another New Orleans jazz great who generously shared his talent with the world, mentoring scores of musicians, sharing his gifts and becoming one of the most beloved figures in musical history.
We have all heard tales of legendary pizza makers who seem to have some mystical ability. In the history of pizza there have been a small number of pizza alchemists who are able to take the most basic ingredients and turn them into something greater than the sum of its par -- a perfect pizza. Like all mythology, the implication is that these people possess some secret technique or ingredient, or perhaps a piece of equipment, some holy grail of knowledge shared by only a select few. The veil of secrecy goes back to pre-Roman days, when guilds and societies were formed to insure job security. In ancient Roman times bread baking was considered so crucial that if you were born in to a baking family you were required by law to continue that trade. My Dad once told me that 80 year old Italian bakers in New York in the 1930’s would jealously guard their recipe books from their co-workers fearing that some youngster would steal a secret and force them into retirement. I remember pizzaiolo’s removing the temperature knobs from ovens to hide their chosen baking temperature from “pizza spies”. To this day I know pizza makers who carefully shred the labels from tomato cans before discarding them. The folly of this is that most of these folks are baking at the same temperature, using the same tomatoes, and generally following the same procedures. At the very least they have more in common than they can imagine and they would realize that if they ever bothered to speak with one another.
Besides the fact that all of this secrecy has created a culture of distrust among professional pizza makers there is another problem. Every once in a while someone does come up with a true insight or improvement. My feeling is that if we don’t generously share knowledge something very important could be lost. Look at it this way: who has brought more lasting joy to the world, Freddie Keppard or Louis Armstrong?